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17 June 1999

Our current howler (part I): Loaded for Bush

Synopsis: The pundits swore they’d “dissect every word.” So far, we haven’t quite seen it.

Commentary by Bernard Kalb, Susan Feeney, Howard Kurtz
Reliable Sources, CNN, 6/12/99

Commentary by Cokie Roberts
This Week, ABC, 6/13/99

Commentary by Morton Kondracke
The Beltway Boys, Fox News Channel, 6/12/99

Commentary by Brian Williams, Eric Pooley
The News with Brian Williams, MSNBC, 6/14/99

How George Got His Groove
Eric Pooley, Time, 6/21/99

The Bush debut weekend was under way. And Bernie Kalb was afraid that the pundits and scribes were going easy on the GOP hopeful:
KALB: Are we finding that we have these concertos, these crescendos of coverage for George W. without there being enough of picking him apart in an ideological and a conservative sense as well?
Susan Feeney reassured Bernie:
FEENEY: Oh, I promise that will happen...The picking apart will come later and I’m certain the Bush campaign knows that as well.
“The picking apart may take three or four days,” boasted Kalb’s co-host, Howard Kurtz, setting the tone for a brash pundit display in the weekend of the W Launch.

All over the airwaves, the press corps swore it was determined to “pick apart” Bush. Cokie Roberts, live in Iowa, saw a press corps in full campaign mode:

ROBERTS: Hordes of cameras and correspondents, numbers usually reserved for the last weeks of a campaign, document and dissect every moment to see if he lives up to expectations.
Great! Morton Kondracke grilled Carl Cameron, sweltering in Cedar Rapids:
KONDRACKE: Obviously, the media is looking for mistakes. Any mistakes?
You could barely hold the press corps back--to hear the press corps tell it. “The press corps is going to obviously dog this guy every time he goes out in daylight,” Kurtz said.

But the fact is, the Bush campaign had made some stumbles--and the press corps had said next to nothing (see tomorrow’s HOWLER). We had a sense that the press corps’ bark was badly outstripping its bite.

Was there some front-running going on? We really couldn’t avoid that impression when Brian Williams went tete-a-tete with Eric Pooley, who had written Time’s lengthy bio of Bush in its current edition. Williams asked Pooley to share his “feel” for Bush. “What’s he like,” he asked the scribe. The scribe was a pundit in love:

POOLEY (on MSNBC): Well you know, as everybody who’s ever met George W. will tell you, he’s the most likable guy in the world. He’s gregarious, he wants to seem that he’s transparent and of course he’s not transparent, he’s actually very, very sort of guarded. But above that there’s a layer of openness and big-hearted Texas vibe that really comes through and that’s why, you know, part of the reason he’s at 81% in the polls down in Texas. He’s doing great down there and he’s rolling out across the country.
Wow! Even Williams didn’t know what to say in the face of the admiring rant. Before he could even think of a question, Pooley was gushing again:
POOLEY (on MSNBC): You know, it’s more extraordinary, Brian, when you think about how far this guy has come, the distance he’s traveled. You know, he’s a late bloomer. The outlines of that story are well known, that he quit drinking, that he had a failed business, that he turned his life around in 1986. But what we tried to do at Time is laser in on that year to see how he handled himself and how he turned himself around and what that may portend for a Bush presidency.
Does that story portend anything at all? We don’t know, but as told by Pooley in the pages of Time, it’s a story of connection and privilege. At a time when the oil biz was on the skids, Bush was trying to sell his failed company, Spectrum. According to Pooley, Texas-based Harken Oil & Gas bought out the failed company at a handsome price, giving Bush “his first real personal wealth.” Pooley explained why they did it:
POOLEY (in Time): What did the Harken bosses see in Spectrum? Some productive oil wells, to be sure, but mostly they saw the son of the sitting Vice President. “His name was George Bush. That was worth the money they paid him,” says Harken founder David Kendrick, who sold the company in 1983 but stayed on as a consultant. Whatever the motivation, it was liberating for Bush. He had money and no day job.
None of this was mentioned on air by Pooley, as he explained how Bush had “turned his life around:”
POOLEY (on MSNBC): I wanted to see how he had handled adversity in 1986 when everybody in the oil patch was going through a hard time and I found out some interesting stuff. For example, when his company was bought by Harken Oil, it was another instance where he jumped into cow manure and came out smelling like a rose. But twelve people who worked for him weren’t going to get jobs in that deal. He went out and found jobs for all twelve of them. He’s never talked about it. You know he’s a decent guy.
How had he “handled adversity and “turned his life around?” According to Time, his father’s friends gave him a big sack of money. But none of that would be mentioned on air, as Pooley explained what a great guy Bush is. Pooley also opined (unasked) that Bush had not done drugs, and told viewers that “he hates to ride in a limousine.” Williams and Pooley were equally amazed that Bush, who grew up in Midland, Texas, “is roundly described as a guy who appears to be a Texan!” (Williams’ words)

Here at THE HOWLER, we do not believe that the press corps should “go after” hopefuls. In fact, we think there’s an excellent field in the White House race--including Governor Bush. We do not think the press corps exists to “dissect” every word the hopefuls utter. After thirteen months, this crew still hadn’t figured out Monica’s age (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/99). Given the limits imposed by their odd lack of skill, we think they should devise more realistic objectives.

But we couldn’t help chuckling as we watched them boast of their plans to dog Gov. Bush. The brags and boasts seemed especially strange in the face of the fawning early coverage. And given the rough coverage of that boring Al Gore, we decided to look further at CelebCorps’ performance. As usual, the press corps was eager to praise its own stuff. We saw something else going on.

Tomorrow: Pledging to pounce on every mistake, the press corps looked away from several stumbles.